Part 2: What makes neighborhoods walkable
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Our 19th Century ancestors who built Somerville’s streets, structures and squares gave no more thought to walkability than a fish gives to water. They created a built environment that met their needs, and they were walkers.
But following World War II, suburban life held a seductive allure. The city’s population dropped from 103,000 in 1950 to 77,000 in 1980. The dimensions of this exodus were greater than these numbers imply, since immigrants replaced many of the departed.
Decades past, and those who had left in search of privacy often found isolation. Those fleeing congestion came to sacrifice time, money, and health to highway traffic. Those wanting to shed their working-class identities lived to experience an America where popular culture denies the existence of class.
Today, their grandchildren increasingly want to live in walkable neighborhoods like Somerville’s. And they want to understand what makes communities walkable.
Jeff Speck answers that a walk must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Mr. Speck consults to the City of Somerville and is author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.
Urban designers describe the physical characteristics that shape these four subjective conditions. Walkable neighborhoods have a center. For a walk to be “useful,” there must be a rich diversity of things to walk to—stores, services, work, school, public transportation, civic functions, entertainment.
There were once 14 movie theaters in Somerville. Their locations are a good indication of neighborhood centers. Teele Square, Ball Square, Lower Broadway, and Cross Street each had a theater. Davis Square hosted two, as did the intersection of Central and Highland. Union Square and Winter Hill each boasted three.
No place in Somerville was more than a ten-minute walk from where one could buy daily necessities, encounter friends, or be entertained. This kind of density of goods and services, in turn, requires a density of residents to support flourishing businesses and frequent transit service.
Pedestrians need to feel safe. In the first instance, this means feeling safe from cars.
A variety of design criteria contribute to pedestrian safety. Generally, the smaller the blocks, the more walkable the streets. Small blocks disperse traffic.
Urban lane widths should rarely be greater than ten feet. Wider lanes promote higher speeds.
Two-way streets tend to be safer than one-way streets. Continuous on-street parking, continuous street trees, and bike lanes buffer pedestrians from traffic. Curb cuts that enable vehicles to cross sidewalks should be minimized.
Urban designers use the term “complete streets.” “Complete,” here means, “inclusive.” It means that everyone feels safe sharing the street, not that you have a separate space for each use. It requires integrating transportation planning with land use.
Humans have a need for refuge. Our predecessors who survived long enough to transmit their genes to us instinctively protected their flanks from things that would eat them. This need seems to be encoded in our DNA. Urban designers talk about a “sense of enclosure” that is required to create comfortable, walkable streets.
We feel better in spaces with defined edges—what some call “outdoor living rooms.” From classical times, designers have suggested that the ideal street space has a height-to width ratio of 1:1. More recently, researchers find that ratios beyond 1:6 create an environment that people want to flee. Think McGrath Highway.
Buildings on walkable streets come up to the sidewalks, with few gaps between them. Parking lots are behind buildings. Street trees contribute to a sense of enclosure while moderating heat and wind, absorbing rain and emissions, and providing shade.
Sound affects our sense of comfort. Heavy traffic and construction noises are conditions that we want to pass through as quickly as possible. Sounds of a fountain or agreeable music encourage us to linger.
Cleanliness is also important. A littered or poorly maintained environment will keep people away from an otherwise well designed streetscape.
None of the foregoing matters much if the walk is boring. The more frequently views change, the more interesting the walk is. A series of narrower buildings is more interesting than a large façade. Frequent doors and windows are essential. Think of Magoun Square, Ball Square Union Square or Lower Broadway.
Now think about Twin Cities Plaza or Assembly Square Market Place. In these locales, the only purpose for your walk is to get back and forth to you car as quickly as possible. On the walkable streets, the ever-shifting storefronts, doors, and windows enrich the experience.
Retail uses at street level are more interesting. Office and residential uses should be on upper levels, also ensuring that there are eyes on the street for more hours of the day, enhancing safety. The street sides of parking structures should be devoted to active uses rather than being blank walls. Public art, vegetation, and well-designed street furniture can evoke interest.
What seems to interest humans most is other humans. We’re curious about each other, we feel safer when others are present, and we see their presence as indication that something interesting is going on. Jeff Speck writes, “The goal of all of the designers who make up the city must be to create urban environments that communicate the presence, or likely presence, of human activity.”
Those who built Somerville created a great urban environment by simply designing a city that met their daily needs. The emergence of a cult of expertise subsequently persuaded us that the pronouncements of experts were more legitimate than the authenticity of our own experience.
To its credit, the City of Somerville began its Comprehensive Plan process by soliciting the wisdom of ‘Villens lived experience. What emerged was a commitment to urban design and land use goals that conserve and enhance what’s best about our neighborhoods.
In the final installment, I’ll look at what the city is doing to protect and extend the domain of walkability.